By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – Rachel Cliff says she is not running with a chip on her shoulder but her results since a bold switch to the marathon from the 5,000 metres might suggest otherwise as the Canadian looks to punch her ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Cliff, in only her second career marathon, shattered the Canadian record in March at the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in Japan where her time of two hours, 26 minutes 56 seconds was 64 seconds faster than the previous national mark set in 2013.
“I was fortunate that I was able to apply the lessons I had learned in the shorter events to the marathon,” Cliff, 31, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“And the training and the mentality of the event seemed to come quickly to me and I think that was partly because I was able to get a lot of advice from people who’d done it before.”
Yet Cliff would likely have never even started to focus on the gruelling 26.2-mile (42.16 km) distance if it had not been for some heartbreak suffered a few years earlier.
She had met the Olympic standard in the 5,000m along with two other Canadian women ahead of the 2016 Rio Games but was not selected for the team by Athletics Canada, who chose not to use up all three spots allowed per country for an individual event.
The Vancouver distance runner, who had long ago dreamed of representing her country on the Olympic stage, did not go down without a fight and appealed the decision, but it was rejected.
“The simplest way to explain it now is they had the option to pick three people but for various reasons they chose to keep two,” said Cliff, who is a Canadian brand ambassador for Swiss-based sportswear company On. “It didn’t go as I wanted but that’s what happened.”
Cliff eventually accepted that she had already pushed toward her upper limit in terms of how fast she run the 5,000m and so decided her best chance at fulfilling her dream of competing in an Olympics was through the marathon.
When Cliff finally made the switch, she made sure she did so with a clear mind rather than carry any grudges from her failed bid to make the team that competed in Rio.
“Distance running is all about being calm and patient and relaxed and I think if you are running with a bunch of negative energy like that it might be sustainable for a few months but you’ll kind of exhaust yourself and not enjoy the sport anymore,” said Cliff. “So I tried to kind of let it go.”
Cliff, whose husband Chris Winter represented Canada in the 3000m steeplechase at the 2016 Rio Olympics, wasted no time making a mark in her new event.
She enjoyed the fastest ever debut marathon by a Canadian woman when she finished the 2018 Berlin Marathon in 11th place with a time of 2:28:53.
Six months later in Japan Cliff took nearly two full minutes off her Berlin time to establish herself as one of the Canada’s top distance runners.
While Cliff has not yet secured a spot on Canada’s marathon team for the Tokyo Olympics she knows she has found the event that best suits her abilities and feels she has what it takes to become one of the best in the world.
“My potential in the longer events could be world class,” said Cliff. “In 2016 that was something that my coach and I really discovered about myself is I definitely belong in the longer events.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Toby Davis)